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Counterterrorism Chief Christy Abizaid on top terror threats

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Christine “Christy” Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Abizaid explains how the center’s mission has evolved in the two decades following 9/11 and where its current areas of focus are. She details the existing external attack capabilities of terror networks including ISIS, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab and explains how their ideologies have spread worldwide. Abizaid also offers her perspective on the threat within the U.S. of domestic violent extremists, explaining how NCTC supports domestic law enforcement agencies in tracking and disrupting potential attacks. 

HIGHLIGHTS: 

  • ON NCTC’S MISSION: “We exist as the government’s knowledge base on terrorism. We have the authoritative database on known and suspected terrorists. We have a strategic operational planning function. We are unique across government in the authorities we have, the data we have, the collaboration across an interagency environment that exists at NCTC, and that is all to serve the protection of the United States of America. Our primary role is to connect the dots, to live in the seams and to look across the information that we have to be able to discern when a threat is coming our way. And so transnational linkages, searching for transnational linkages, figuring out ways to disrupt those transnational linkages – that’s our bread and butter.”  
  • THE MOST LIKELY ATTACK SCENARIO IN U.S. OR EUROPE: “[W]hen I look at the most likely way in which a terrorist attack will happen here in the homeland or in parts of Europe, it is an individual, motivated, using crude weapons, easily accessed, including a vehicle that they might drive on a regular basis. And it’s without many of the signatures that have allowed us to protect against the centrally directed networked threat for so many years.”
  • TRACKING THE TERROR THREAT IN AFGHANISTAN: “Afghanistan is harder than when we had troops on the ground, FOBs all over the country, and were able to target threats as soon as we saw them. It is a harder operating environment, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to be effective as a counterterrorism community in, one, understanding the threats that might be developing there; two, kind of building a CT architecture not just in Afghanistan, but around Afghanistan, to protect against that and using all the best tools at our disposal to disrupt the facilitation routes, understand where the money is going, discern what plots are actually forming to be credible and must demand that we take action.  And so I’m confident in our counterterrorism community. I’m confident and the focus that we have there. And yes, it’s a hard target, but we were built for those.” 
  • THREAT FROM DOMESTIC VIOLENT EXTREMISM: “We’ve had 45 foreign terrorist attacks inside the homeland since 9/11 over the last 21 years. In half that time, since 2010, we’ve had the same number of attacks from what we term as domestic violent extremists. And most of those attacks, which are highly lethal, the majority of them and the majority of the deaths are perpetrated by a racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists… And so we from the national counterterrorism community are really focused on doing our part within the scope of our authorities to support the FBI, to support DHS, as we try and get ahead of and protect against that version of the terrorist threat that is presented to Americans.” 

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – CHRISTINE ABIZAID

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Christy, thank you for joining us. It’s great to have you on the show and it’s great to see you again.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah, it’s really good to be here. Thank you very much for having me on.

MICHAEL MORELL: So if it’s okay with you, I’d love to cover three areas. I’d like to talk a little bit about your career. I’d like to talk a little bit about NCTC as an institution, and then I’d love to ask you a few questions about kind of the threat environment today.

CHRISTY ABIZARD: Absolutely. Okay.

MICHAEL MORELL: So your career, what got you interested in public service, number one, and in a career in intelligence, number two?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: So I come from a long line of public servants. My father, most prominently – he was a career military officer, army officer, ended his career as the commander of CENTCOM. But my grandfather was a judge in our small town where my mom was born, in small town, California. And, you know, public service has just always been the thing that we do. That’s that’s what we understand. 

Now, I did not have a goal to go into public service. And, in fact, I graduated college in the summer of 2001, and it was the 9/11 attacks that really gave me purpose, that really kind of crystallized for me that I wanted to be part of the solution. I wanted to serve, get into the CT fight, and I wanted to work for the government to protect Americans.
And so, it was in my blood. But it was the cause, the proximate cause was 9/11 that got me into public service and the intelligence community specifically.

MICHAEL MORELL: And why intelligence and not some other aspect of government?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: I’ll be honest – I tried any way in to the CT fight. I applied to be in the Postal Service as an investigator, I applied to be a background investigator. I went on a shots-on-goal approach to get into the United States government, because I thought once I was in the United States government, I’d be able to serve.

And of those shots on goal, I was lucky enough to be recognized by the Defense Intelligence Agency, who brought me in as they were building up a new cadre of CT professionals in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

And I think they recognized in me less a deep and vast expertise, great language capability. What they recognized in me was that I was a college athlete. I was willing to work hard. I’d be passionate about the work and and quick on my feet. And so I was really, really lucky to come into the intelligence community at the time that I did and to be given the opportunity to serve the way I have.

MICHAEL MORELL: So what do you think are the key factors in your success, which has been significant? You’re the youngest director of NCTC ever. What’s behind that success, do you think? And what are the kind of lessons for younger officers who want to be like you?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Well, Mike Leiter would tell you he was much younger than me.

MICHAEL MORELL: But it’s not true, I don’t think.

CHRISTY ABIZAID. Good, I can’t wait to get that fact check and take it to him. (Laughter). That’ll be a lot of fun.
I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, when I think about my career and I think about the opportunities that I have been lucky enough to have been presented along the way, for me, what has been important is that I’m open to opportunities that I might not have considered if I had tried to map this out, a five year plan.

Right? When I think about where I was on June 3rd 2002, when I entered on duty at the Defense Intelligence Agency – One, the National Counterterrorism Center didn’t exist. But I never thought that I was going to be a leader in the CT community. I just knew I wanted to contribute.

And being open about the ways in which I would be able to contribute, thinking about how I wanted to progress in my career, not from job to job, but from capability to capability, from professional development experience to professional development experience, that’s what’s been important to me.

So, I’ve stumbled my way to being in the best job in government, but, the key is: be good at what you do, be committed to what you do, be passionate about what you do, take care of the people that you work with and for and who work for you. And you’ll be able to find a way to contribute.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So, Christy, you’re also the first female and the first openly gay director of NCTC. How do you think about those things? How do you think about breaking the glass ceiling on those things? And do you think it puts more weight on your shoulders? Do you think you feel more responsibility as a result of it?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: So I don’t think about those things. In part because if you think too much about it, you kind of lose sight of the work that you need to get done.

I do recognize that it’s important and it’s important to be seen in the position that I’m in, that people will look at what I’m doing and will take a representation of that and latch on to it – good, bad or indifferent.

And so I need to be cognizant of it and needs to be and something that I recognize is important to people. But it is not the thing that motivates me about the work that I do.

I am mission-first. I am purpose-driven. And I have had the opportunity to do amazing things in the time that I have served for the United States government. And I’m really lucky that that has paid off in a way that has allowed me to contribute in a role like this.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. Great transition. NCTC: what’s the mission?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Protect the country. Protect Americans overseas. First and foremost, that’s what we have to be laser-focused on.

We exist as the government’s knowledge base on terrorism. We have the authoritative database on known and suspected terrorists. We have a strategic operational planning function. We are unique across government in the authorities we have, the data we have, the collaboration across an interagency environment that exists at NCTC, and that is all to serve the protection of the United States of America.

MICHAEL MORELL: And in terms of the analytic function that you have, how does it differ from what CIA does or DIA?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: I think our difference is in the uniqueness of the data that we hold. We hold data from multiple parts of the government. We hold data that focuses on the homeland, that focuses on foreign intelligence targets. And we’re the one place where all that data comes together and comingles, which means that, as a strategic intelligence analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center, you get access to that data, you’re able to exploit that data and you’re laser-focused on understanding how that data will inform your understanding of what’s coming at the homeland in terms of the terrorist threat.

And you do that in an environment at NCTC where you’re sitting next to an ODNI cadre analyst, you’re sitting next to a CIA analyst, you’re sitting next to an FBI analyst, a DIA analyst. It is an interagency environment and it’s one of the few that exist where we collaborate as a matter of how we do business.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what’s your role in domestic terrorism – whether it’s Americans inspired by jihadi terrorism or whether it’s right-wing terrorism – what do you do? What don’t you do?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: So we actually have unique authorities to be relevant in this space in a way that other parts of the intelligence community need to be very careful about.

We, in the domestic context, are kind of a support element to the FBI, to the Department of Homeland Security – especially when you’re talking about those acts of terrorism, those individuals that are motivated to violence without any inspiration from or connection to a foreign terrorist organization.

Our primary role is to connect the dots, to live in the seams and to look across the information that we have to be able to discern when a threat is coming our way. And so transnational linkages, searching for transnational linkages, figuring out ways to disrupt those transnational linkages – that’s our bread and butter.

But we are also what I would say is the U.S. government’s premiere counterterrorism analysis center. And so the way that we are able to leverage our analytic expertise in support of whatever the predominant trend is in the counterterrorism environment in the United States is critical. And we have real contributions to make across the board.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I want to ask you about budgets. And I know you are you are constrained in what you can say. I know it’s hard to say the administration is not giving you enough or Congress is not giving you enough. I’ve been there. I know that.

But it’s also clear that both in the Trump administration CT was a bill-payer and in the Biden administration CT is a bill-payer for great power competition. So where are you from a budget perspective? Are you being squeezed? What’s the impact of that? How do you think about it?

Yeah, the budget trends are downward and they’re downward across administrations. But in some ways, in very reasonable ways.

First, I mean, let me just say, as the leader of the National Counterterrorism Center, I couldn’t be more supportive of our government’s focus on strategic competition. It is exactly where we need to go.

And as we look at orienting our national security infrastructure in a way that actually gets at the complex dynamics associated with Russia, China, the cybersecurity dynamics that are all at play – I think that’s strategically absolutely where we need to go.

And the fact that we can do it in a proactive way, the fact that we’re not reacting as we were immediately post-9/11 to create an infrastructure after a crisis, I think is real credit to administrations across parties and recognition of what is the major strategic threat that we need to be prepared to address.

Now, I also believe that our counterterrorism work is an enabling function to all that. One major attack swings us right back into the wrong direction. And so for us, we need to be really deliberate in this moment of choice about what counterterrorism capability we sustain, what collaboration mechanisms are most effective.

We have built something great over the last 20 years that has protected the country against another major 9/11-style attack that needs to be sustained. And we need to be very choosy about how we sustain it in the most effective manner.

And so I think the budget pressures are right; they’re making us ask the right questions. It’s in service to the right strategic mission for the country. But fundamentally, CT is an enabling capability for the rest of the national security infrastructure. And we need to sustain it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I think I’m going to get this right, but – you have sort of a mixed workforce, right? You have folks on rotation from other agencies. And then you have your own permanent people.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: That’s correct.

MICHAEL MORELL: So if I’m listening to this podcast and I’m listening to Christy and I say, ‘I want to work there’ – What do you look for in your permanent employees that you hire? How should I be thinking about building my resume to get a job at NCTC?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Well, you need to do more than play soccer in college like I did.
No, look, we look for passion, we look for expertise. We look for agility. We look for language capability. We look for deep expertise in certain aspects of especially data science technologies. We need to keep our technological edge as a CT community, and we want to house those capabilities at NCTC.

We look for regional expertise. We look for, fundamentally, people that are passionate about protecting the United States, passionate about the counterterrorism mission, and who want to own the responsibility of protecting the country on their shoulders.

And there’s a wide range of people that really fill the halls of NCTC, of ODNI, and all of them share that trait – that they really want to own this responsibility at this moment in our country’s history.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. So let’s switch to the third area – the threat today. And the first question is the strategic threat, right? So we’re almost 21 years now past 9/11. How do you think of the threat from the 50,000-foot level?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: It is complex. It is a complex environment, where, in some ways you look at the threat that was coming at us on 9/11 from a centrally organized, isolated, ideologically committed network – defined network that was based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. And that threat, that threat from that version of al-Qaeda has been decimated.

Now, in its place, al-Qaeda has spawned multiple affiliates across multiple different regions. We’ve got al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is probably, I think, the most concerning of the affiliates, in terms of intent against the homeland.

We’ve got al-Shabaab, we’ve got JNIM in North Africa, which is driving a number of really interesting dynamics in terms of how that threat environment is evolving.

You’ve got a new environment in Afghanistan which, you know, 21 years later is a very difficult environment to discern in terms of what’s happening from a CT perspective. And you have the spawning of ISIS, which comes from an al-Qaeda in Iraq background, which has grown in terms of its branches and affiliates over the last many years, including, you know, I think it’s something like 16 different branches across multiple different countries.

And they have taken what was this centrally organized, hierarchical approach to plotting against the West and they democratized it and they made it much more difficult for counterterrorism professionals across Europe, across the United States, across the world to understand what was happening in terms of an individual’s decision to motivate to violence.

And when I look at the most likely way in which a terrorist attack will happen here in the homeland or in parts of Europe, it is an individual, motivated, using crude weapons, easily accessed, including a vehicle that they might drive on a regular basis. And it’s without many of the signatures that have allowed us to protect against the centrally directed networked threat for so many years.

Now, that’s not to say that that centrally directed threat doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just that we’ve gotten much better at deterring that then than I think any of us expected immediately after 9/11.

MICHAEL MORELL: So let’s maybe dive a little bit deeper into the into the individual issues. And I’d love to start with Afghanistan.

So in his confirmation hearing in February, the new CENTCOM commander, General Kurilla, said al Qaeda and ISIS-K are reconstituting. He also said that both groups have aspirations to attack the homeland, but they don’t yet have the capability.

So I’d love your view on how significant the reconstitutions have been and if you see any evidence at all of either group building an external attack capability.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: The dynamic in and around Afghanistan is one of our top priorities from an intelligence community perspective, from a CT perspective. If you think about the way that the strategic landscape has changed over the last however many years, you know, Afghanistan and our presence having been removed from Afghanistan is a major change that we have to understand.

ISIS-K and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent were two networks that were present in Afghanistan when we decided to leave. And they are now dealing with a dynamic that neither of them expected in the Taliban control, de facto control, of Kabul and the country.

And so how these two organizations deal with the new reality is very different. ISIS-K views the Taliban as its number one enemy. And if you have followed the news of what the security environment looks like in Afghanistan right now, it is marred by ISIS-K.

Whether that ISIS-K focus against the Taliban actually translates to an external intent that they are actively pursuing today, that is our main intelligence priority.

The al-Qaeda dynamic is different. The – al-Qaeda has to wrestle with a long-standing history with the Taliban, where their actions reflect on the Taliban’s ability to lead the country, the international perception of the Taliban as legitimate, and I think that creates a much different dynamic than we’re dealing with on the ISIS-K side.

So, you know, top priority, really important in terms of understanding the external intent. My suspicion is that this kind of democratized model of inspired attacks is the most likely way you’re going to see anything external emerge from any of the ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliates across the board.

But, indications and warnings of a major external operation capability being rebuilt in Afghanistan is our top priority.

MICHAEL MORELL: So General Kurilla, in his testimony – and Bill Burns has said this publicly as well, CIA Director Burns – that maintaining this over-the-horizon capability is really tough. Not impossible, but really, really tough. So I’m just wondering how much you worry about what you don’t know.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Well, I mean, I’m a CT professional. That’s, like, my number one worry, is what I don’t know is happening. And that’s not just an Afghanistan statement.

I don’t think of the Afghanistan CT environment as one that’s entirely over the horizon. We’re intelligence professionals. We do denied area operations all over the world and against really hard targets. And we’re going to have to build that for Afghanistan as well. And we’ve always known that.

Afghanistan is harder than when we had troops on the ground, FOBs all over the country, and were able to target threats as soon as we saw them. It is a harder operating environment, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to be effective as a counterterrorism community in, one, understanding the threats that might be developing there; two, kind of building a CT architecture not just in Afghanistan, but around Afghanistan, to protect against that and using all the best tools at our disposal to disrupt the facilitation routes, understand where the money is going, discern what plots are actually forming to be credible and must demand that we take action.

And so I’m confident in our counterterrorism community. I’m confident and the focus that we have there. And yes, it’s a hard target, but we were built for those.

MICHAEL MORELL: So let’s move, Christy, to Iraq and Syria. And I’m wondering what the status of ISIS is there? Are they bouncing back or not?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah. Well, so, the death of Hajji Abdullah in February was, I think, a major blow to the organization, not least because it was the most recent in a series of successive losses that took experienced leaders off the battlefield.

And when you think about our counterterrorism pressure campaign over especially the last ten years, it’s fundamentally about getting the most talented, most threatening individuals off the battlefield in a way that protects the country. And so, kudos to all of the work across the intelligence community and military operational community.

MICHAEL MORELL: Were you surprised that it didn’t generate more more media interest? And maybe that’s actually a good thing, if you think about it.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah. I mean, I look at that and I say, ‘Well, look at how resilient we are as a country where this hasn’t become the news cycle for the last 48 hours, the last two weeks were not – you know, a lot of people were asking, ‘Who’s this Hajji Abdullah guy?’ Everybody knows who ISIS is, but, you know, I actually think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good sign for the country.

Now, ISIS core still remains a problem. And when I raise my concerns about where an external threat could emerge from, ISIS core is always going to be at the top of that list.

But it’s fascinating to see just how relegated to a local insurgency that organization has become. And their kind of leadership of the global jihad in that 2014 to 2017 timeframe is so dramatically different than where they are today. And really, that’s a credit to our continued and persistent presence and effort there.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So at their peak, they had this very effective propaganda campaign, right. Which actually radicalized a number of Americans who conducted attacks here. Where is that?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: I mean, it’s a shell of itself, of its former self. Now, it’s interesting in terms of looking at the propaganda machines of all of these groups and in particular the degree to which they want to invest in English language capabilities to try and really kind of drive their message to audiences where they can inspire the right kind of attacks in the areas that they view as most strategic. It is a constant focus.

This is not just about getting trained operatives seeded into the right environments for them. The media operations are an essential component to sustaining the global campaign, both for ISIS and for al-Qaeda. They’re continuing it. The resonances may be higher than Zawahiri’s latest audio message that nobody really wants to listen to. But it is a shell of its former self.

MICHAEL MORELL: And is it your sense that we’re better at dealing with it at the same time or not? It’s tough to deal with, right?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah, I actually don’t know that we’re better at dealing with it.
It is the propaganda arms, the media arms of these organizations, especially as they get more and more decentralized, there are more and different kinds of outlets that propagate their messages. It can become a very diffuse and difficult challenge.

There are also media environments that seem to be focused more on kind of the local environment that they’re dealing with and occasionally spring up to try and kind of connect the global environment, the global cause together. And it just makes for a very challenging messaging environment.

MICHAEL MORELL: So AQAP in Yemen – so, when I was deputy director, this was the issue, right? This was the place we worried most about. There was a number of attempted attacks coming out of Yemen toward the homeland. You mentioned it a few minutes ago. Is a place you still worry about? What’s going on with AQAP? How much does the civil war there play to them, give them space? How do you think about AQAP?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: I mean, in general, any environment that invites chaos provides opportunity for these groups to thrive. And AQAP has certainly been able to sustain itself – though, has absolutely been distracted by and undermined by both the international coalition that’s active there, and this dynamic with the Houthis that results in squeezing of their territory from directions that they may not have anticipated.

That said, the concern that I’ve always had with AQAP is a concern that pertains today, which is that small cadre of experienced operatives that is focused on mounting some of the most technologically sophisticated external attacks that we’ve seen emerge from the al-Qaeda network.

And when you look across the last 20 years and the number of attacks that have happened here in the homeland, you know, the most recent was in 2019, where AQAP associated itself with the shooting in Pensacola, Florida, at the Naval Air Station.

Those are the kinds of things that we’ve got to be very attentive to. We have to understand that they could emerge from anywhere. And we’ve got to kind of train our intelligence resources on understanding that piece of tactical information that may not seem relevant in a sea of other information, but that you can discover and then disrupt threats based on.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know, the Pensacola attack was interesting because it was an external attack.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: It was. And it was interesting because we didn’t know it at the time. It took about a couple of months for them to claim it and a couple months later for the United States government to talk about what we found in terms of the validity of that linkage.

And in that time, I mean, speaking again to the resilience of the American public and how much these kinds of attacks dominate the narrative, it seemed to me that the American public had moved on.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And then Africa. You mentioned al-Shabaab in Somalia. General Townsend, who is the commander of AFRICOM, as you know, said it’s the group of al-Qaeda folks he worries most about. He doesn’t have to worry about Yemen. But he says it’s the group he worries most about and I’m wondering how you think about al-Shabaab in terms of an external attack capability outside of Somalia, in Africa, and then even outside of Africa. How concerned are you about that?

CHRISTY ABIZAID:I am more concerned about Shabaab’s attack capability in the region that they dominate – Somalia, of course. But Americans that are in Kenya, Americans in the surrounding region, I am concerned about the degree to which al-Shabaab is able to project outside of Somalia, especially in that immediate, their immediate environs.

Shabaab’s intent for external operations farther afield is is a subject of a lot of scrutiny in the intelligence community and for good reason. It is the most well-funded of al Qaeda’s current affiliates. It’s the most capable, most active in their immediate field of operations. And it’s connected to other al-Qaeda elements that, with their contribution to any kind of plotting, we should be really concerned about the effects that it could have, including here in the homeland.

And so I would I would describe the the overall external threat from Shabaab as something that has to be a top intelligence priority, and certainly is.

MICHAEL MORELL: Why are they better funded than most other groups?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Because of the territory they own in Somalia and the way in which they’re able to extort their way to deep coffers. It is pretty remarkable.

And can I just just add a little bit on Africa – and General Townsend and I have had these conversations. As much as Shabaab is an urgent threat and one in which we’ve really got to get our arms around from an intelligence and operational perspective, the trickier intelligence challenge, the indications and warning challenge, I actually think comes from North Africa. It comes from the al-Qaeda affiliate that’s operating there and has really expanded.

MICHAEL MORELL: When you say North Africa, define that geographically.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Mostly the Sahel.

MICHAEL MORELL: And for those people that don’t know what the Sahel is.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Mali, northern Mali, you know, that region.

MICHAEL MORELL: Southern Libya.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Absolutely. And it’s a cross-border region where a group called JNIM operates and operates with increasing capability and impunity. And, in fact, if you look at some of the littoral African states that border that region in the south and the threat of JNIM’S expansion there, is, you know, really problematic for the stability of governments, the kind of underlying conditions that really allow terrorist groups to thrive.

And the question for us is not just, how does JNIM’s growth affect terrorism on the African continent, affect Americans who might be on the African continent, but, at what point does that threat, that growing dynamic actually present a major threat to the homeland? And how do we as an intelligence community get really smart about the kinds of indications and warnings we need to track to make sure that we understand when this kind of local intent has gone global and is transnationally relevant for our global counterterrorism effort.

MICHAEL MORELL: What’s the source of their growth? What’s the source of their expansion? Is it poor governance? Is it –

CHRISTY ABIZAID: It’s – yes, it’s poor governance. It’s disaffected populations. It’s extortion. It’s their ability to dole out justice more quickly, even if not in a way that all individuals would agree is fair. They are able to thrive in an environment where there is no authority that is holding them accountable and to co-opt a population that is looking to survive.

MICHAEL MORELL: Is there an ISIS group in Africa that you’re concerned about?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah. I mean, there are multiple. ISIS’s branch expansion has been most dramatic in parts of Africa. There’s ISIS West Africa. But there’s also elements in Central Africa. You look at ISIS Somalia and ISIS Somalia’s kind of influence over other branches on the African continent. And there is definitely an ISIS dynamic there.

What’s interesting is the ISIS dynamic is many times in conflict with the al-Qaeda dynamic and kind of the internecine violence that will happen in different parts of Africa is very tribal and creates a complexity for us in the CT environment that is certainly a challenge.

MICHAEL MORELL: The degree to which these groups around the world, both al-Qaeda and ISIS, are connected back to their motherships, right, back to Zawahiri, wherever he is in South Asia, and back to ISIS core in in Iraq and Syria – does it depend? Is that pretty much the same?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: No, I think it varies greatly. I would still call al-Qaeda the more hierarchical of the two. And in fact, if you look at the way that ISIS expanded over the years, they were very interested in democratizing the way in which their brand could flourish, the attempts by different elements that would associate with them to kind of establish their own local caliphate.

So I would say that the metastasizing of the al-Qaeda network, the metastasizing of the ISIS network has kind of very different characteristics that underlie it. Central leadership from the al-Qaeda network is still very important. Zawahiri, as much as some might be bored by him, the al-Qaeda network isn’t, and still kind of considers him an important ideologue for the network.

And ISIS is different that way. It’s much less centrally connected.

MICHAEL MORELL: And lastly, Christy, far right extremism. FBI director Chris Wray says it’s the biggest terrorist threat we face. How should we think about that?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Well, I mean, I think Director Wray is right. So, I was looking at the numbers today. We’ve had 45 foreign terrorist attacks inside the homeland since 9/11 over the last 21 years. In half that time, since 2010, we’ve had the same number of attacks from what we term as domestic violent extremists. And most of those attacks, which are highly lethal, the majority of them and the majority of the deaths are perpetrated by a racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.

When I think about the way that the global terrorism environment has changed, the way that that manifests here in the United States in a different way, this rise of domestic violent extremists that are conducting attacks without motivation from a foreign element, without a connection to a foreign terrorist organization, they are leaving an indelible mark on how the threat is developing in the United States and the way in which Chris Wray’s folks can array against that threat.

And so we from the national counterterrorism community are really focused on doing our part within the scope of our authorities to support the FBI, to support DHS, as we try and get ahead of and protect against that version of the terrorist threat that is presented to Americans.

MICHAEL MORELL: And there’s some links, correct, between these domestic violent extremists here and similar folks overseas.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: That is one of our number one tasks as the National Counterterrorism Center – is to determine the foreign linkages, to understand the transnational elements.

So there are some, but I don’t I don’t want to overstate it. And in fact, what’s interesting and I think important in the intelligence realm is the degree to which our partners and allies in different parts of the world are dealing with similar phenomena and trying to learn from how they’re dealing with racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists. How might that inform the way that we’re dealing with it? And how do we establish a linkage across the movement, which is enabled by social media, in a way that helps us protect against those that actually choose to mobilize to violence.

MICHAEL MORELL: So is it safe to say, Christy, that if your phone rings and somebody tells you that a federal building somewhere in the United States has just been bombed, that your first instinct would go to domestic violent extremism as opposed to international terrorism?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Not necessarily.

MICHAEL MORELL: Not necessarily?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: I think either could happen upon us with equal likelihood. And, you know, look, as an intelligence professional, I’m going to wait to see what the intelligence shows us. But I certainly wouldn’t scope out the DVE threat. And I know it’s just as likely and maybe more so than those that are inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, Christy, last question. What do you want our listeners to know about the women and men who work at NCTC?

CHRISTY ABIZAID: It is a phenomenal group of people. I walk into the building every day fortunate to be surrounded by people that care about what they’re doing, that find purpose in the mission and that are incredibly bright and incredibly committed to doing what we need to do as the National Counterterrorism Center to protect the country and doing the things that we’re uniquely enabled to do at the National Counterterrorism Center.

It’s a place, from an IC perspective, where you get an opportunity unlike any other in the IC in terms of that mix of 16 different agencies surrounding you at your desk as you’re trying to pull together all the relevant information to understand what’s happening.

And I’ve seen this team and the unique capabilities across the center spring to action in a time of crisis. I think the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a perfect example. And to say that I am incredibly proud of what they do on a daily basis would be an understatement. It’s a great place.

MICHAEL MORELL: Christy, thank you so much for joining us.

CHRISTY ABIZAID: Yeah, thank you. Happy to be here. 



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